Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Attachment and the Druid

It finally dawned on me that part of what bothers me with non-attachment/mindfulness thinking is how simple a narrative it gives us about our own feelings and needs. By avoiding attachment to our own feelings we avoid creating drama, we live more peacefully and we’re able to be more compassionate. This is the description of mindfulness given by many websites, and while it might not be the only understanding out there, it’s clearly one a lot of people are working with.

There’s an assumption that our first response is ego-led, in the sense of being driven by our fragility and self importance. If our first emotional impulse was towards care, compassion, patience, generosity or motivated by deep love, there would be no need to retrain ourselves. Certainly, some people’s experience of growing up and living will have encouraged them towards less benevolent impulses, but I think most people are basically ok and well meaning, and that the first feeling is not necessarily the worst feeling.

Are we better people if we don’t get too attached to our own feelings? We may be calmer people, but is calmer actually better? Is it better for all of us? The question is, what do your emotions do in your life? If your own emotional responses lead you to act in ways you don’t like, clearly you need to make changes. If you mostly suffer as a consequence of how you feel, then again you might want to change things. But what if your emotional life feels like something rich and blessed in the first place? What if you bubble up with love and joy, what if you see your grief as a measure of your love and experience anger protectively and in productive ways? What happens if you have a good relationship with your emotions? And then what happens if you practice stepping back from those emotions and seeing them as something that passes through and not an intrinsic part of who you are? Are you better off?

If you think that life is illusion, and that self is illusion, a path that helps you see this more clearly is obviously what you want. But what if that isn’t your perspective? What if you see yourself as a distinct entity and at the same time part of the network of all existence? For an animist, this separate togetherness is a possibility for understanding your place in the world.

Are you worse off if you want to identify with your own emotions? Are you less enlightened if you want a path of involvement with your own feelings, building a sense of self out of your emotional responses to life? For me, Druidry has always been about deep immersion – identifying as a feeling and living being in a world that is alive with intelligence and feeling. My feelings are my response to life, and also part of what I give back. I do my best everything when I give a lot of space to my emotions, take them seriously and invest in what they show me about what’s happening. I’ve started to consider the idea that I may be practicing attachment.

What you need from life depends on who you are and what you want. There’s scope for great diversity here and many different ways of being. For some people, mindfulness and non-attachment makes perfect sense. I have no doubt that for many people it is a rewarding path. What bothers me is the narrative that comes with it about what it means to be human, and a very few options about how to relate to ourselves and live well. It may well be that for those who dig deeper it is more complex, but what’s floating around increasingly in mainstream awareness is painfully narrow.

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A brief history of me offending people

I’ve had some startling things come into focus for me over the last few days. I have no idea if sharing this process will make any sense to anyone else, much less be helpful, but on the off-chance there’s another person out there struggling with similar things, here we go.

On a number of occasions through my adult life, men I have really loved have pushed me away for being too much. These were mostly not romantic or sexual relationships. I’ve carried it as my failing. I’ve carried it as something hideous inside me that is intolerable and unacceptable. These experiences have made me less emotionally open with people, less affectionate, less confident about myself. I want to be honest and open hearted with people, but being afraid that there is something horrible about me, I am cautious and not open.

This week, in an email exchange, I ran into the suggestion that having to think about someone else’s wellbeing all the time is restrictive and oppressive. It was a light bulb moment for me.

I feel honoured to have people in my life whose care and wellbeing I have some responsibility for. If I love someone, there is no burden in caring for them. There is no loss of freedom in being alert to their needs and feelings and trying to do stuff that would help and support them. If I am awake, then the needs of the people I care about are never far from my thoughts. I’m finding it hard to imagine how the opposite could be true, how caring could feel like anything other than a good thing.

Thinking about variously shaped relationships I’ve had with men, for a subset of guys, this apparently is a thing. I’m seeing patterns I’d not registered before. To care about people is to think about what you’re doing – off the cuff, in the moment, careless words and actions don’t fit with that. I recognise I’ve dealt with a fair few men (and some women) for whom thoughtless, off the cuff behaviour was how they felt they most authentically expressed themselves. By that logic, to care and pay attention is not be able to be authentically yourself. For me, my most considered self, my most deliberately chosen way of being, is my most authentic self.

I exist in relationship to other people. Who I am is in no small part who I am in relationship. I do not feel less myself if I make some modifications for someone else’s benefit. I am not less myself if I have to grow, flex or stretch around someone else’s needs. I’ve done some of my best growing this way. I don’t feel entitled to do and say whatever I please and expect everyone around me to be fine with that. I look back over my problem encounters and I see a theme there – how often white, straight, physically well, financially comfortable men feel entitled to have it all their way. My needing something that isn’t immediately easy and convenient to them is an imposition, an unkindness on my part. Unfair. Unreasonable.

Many women have been raised to be alert to and care for the needs of others, whether it suits their true nature or not. Anyone who is outside the mainstream learns quickly that who they are might not be accepted. If you are queer, or Pagan, or polyamorous, or disabled, or poor, then you know perfectly well that you can’t expect it always to go your way. And how much easier life would be if the people who expected to have it all on their terms were a bit more alert to what their freedom might cost someone else.

So I’m putting down the self blame. I am telling myself a new story in which the men who found me unacceptable did so from places that were all about them. Yes, I love more intensely than is normal. Yes, I feel things keenly. Yes, I rock up whole hearted. No, I have no interest in casual, superficial, empty non-relationships. Yes, apparently that does offend some people. No, on reflection, I am not sorry at all for being as I am.


Getting my brain back

One of the things I particularly struggle with around depression and anxiety is the way both of these things impact on my ability to think. When I’m suffering, I lose focus and my concentration is greatly impaired. It takes me longer to do everything, I have fewer ideas, and I’m less confident in my judgement. Of course when everything takes longer, there’s less time for rest or for good stuff, which makes the depression and anxiety worse. A vicious circle forms.

Not being able to think well in recent months has flagged up to me how invested I am in my mental function as part of my identity. I had made a number of work choices based on a belief that I would be clever enough to juggle it all. At the start of September I was working eight different small, part time jobs, because with no idea how the finances were going to work after an unexpected upheaval, I said yes to everything that came in. I put one of those jobs down quickly. Several of the others had steep learning curves and a lot to take in, so the autumn was challenging.

At Christmas I put down what was identifiably the smallest job – some marketing work I’d been doing for a couple of authors. Happily, I was able to point out to them where their own strengths were and how best to go forward and I think they’ve being handling it well since then. I think it was the right time for all of us to reconsider my role.

I came into January with six jobs, coping better and doing more several of them, but still struggling to think. I started to feel like it was me – that I couldn’t cope with forty hour weeks, and that the problem was my own poor mental health. I struggled on, with things getting harder day by day. I reduced my hours on one of the jobs, and got very little benefit from that. By early February, everything was reducing me to tears and I knew I was in trouble. I put down two of the jobs – two that were interlinked. I had got to the point of feeling that I just couldn’t do it anymore, and the fear of breaking down in tears when dealing with people had become a serious thing. At that point I was still afraid that the problem was me, and that I would stay where I was.

In the few weeks since then, I’ve become calmer. I’m still working very long hours, because there are jobs I need to finish. But, this week, my brain started working again. I’ve become faster and more confident, and that in turn has lifted and cheered me. I like myself better when my mind is sharp. I may now be able to create a virtuous circle and get back on my feet again.

What I’ve learned from this is that I can work 40-50 hour weeks and be mentally viable. What I find hard is having to shift between lots of different, often unrelated jobs, but, if everything else is ok, I can do that. Where I have clarity about what I’m supposed to be doing and the room to get on and deliver, I have managed. What I can’t deal with is uncertainty, fast moving goalposts and frequent changes of direction. I don’t know that I could do one 30 hour a week job in that sort of environment and stay functional.

Today I feel a bit more like a person I can recognise. A person who can have ideas and gets stuff done. Feeling more like myself combats the depression and anxiety, and gives me more tools with which to deal with those issues. I’m lucky because I was able to put the problem job down quickly – not everyone can afford to. How many other people’s mental health issues are simply a consequence of their economic circumstances, the lack of control they have over their lives, the pressures created by their workplaces and the huge feelings of uncertainty created by the ill considered choices of governments?


Working while anxious

Experiences of panic and anxiety can make working difficult, or impossible. It’s hard to think clearly when anxious. Decision-making, prioritising, and concentration can all be impaired, which makes getting anything done difficult, and also makes it hard to trust that what you have done is right. Here are some strategies I’ve found helpful for working with anxiety.

Invest more time in planning how and when you are going to do things. I use a physical diary and I allocate work to specific days. Having moved to this from an endless to-do list, I find it helps me stay on top of work and not get overwhelmed. Also use your diary to plan rest time, time off and restorative activities. Time spent planning is a good investment because it’ll help you avoid being overwhelmed. It helps with making more realistic decisions, and monitoring progress. It gives a much needed feeling of being in control.

Take breaks. It is more efficient to take a break than it is to push on with poor concentration and mess up. It is more efficient to take a day off, get into a better headspace and carry on from there than it is to burn out, collapse or have a meltdown. If something seems impossible or overwhelming, stepping back to properly assess it puts you in a better position.

Look after your physical health. Eat good food, move about, get outside, stay hydrated, get enough rest and sleep. Don’t treat your body as a non-issue because the work is on top of you. Look after your body and you will be better able to cope with everything.

Don’t assume the problem is you. When you’re anxious, it’s easy to assume that the problems with stress and overload are being caused by your own mental health problems. This isn’t necessarily true. It may well be that stress has external causes that need dealing with. If you don’t feel able to assess this, check in with someone you trust and ask them how it looks. If your workplace is making unreasonable demands, even if you can’t get that changed it can help a lot knowing that the demands are unreasonable and that it isn’t coming from inside you. Feelings of failing only add to feelings of anxiety.

If you live with other people, check in with them too about balances of work and domestic responsibility. We have a household policy that the person who is having the easier time with paid work picks up the larger share of the domestic work – and we pass that balance back and forth at need. We re-negotiate regularly and we check in with each other to see what’s changing. If one person has a deadline, it might be a good week to let them off domestic responsibilities. I find that in the week or so after a big project, I’m more inclined to do the domestic things and may dig in for deeper cleaning and re-organising.

We don’t become anxious alone. Anxiety is the consequence of experience, and it’s often the consequence of having been put under too much pressure for too long a period. We don’t solve this on our own – even if all the conventional responses to mental health make it an individual issue. In practice, the solution to mental health difficulties is often team work. Wellness is a consequence of how we work together, how we share the loads, the stresses and the opportunities to kick back. If we all check in with each other to make sure workloads are shared fairly, anxiety is reduced. We can also help each other by working together to create peaceful, supportive environments and to plan ahead so that people know what they’re doing and when. Predictability eases anxiety.


Landscapes of the mind

The way in which we use the language of ‘up’ to express positivity has been on my mind since I read Ecolinguistics (review here). Moving forward, going up, rising – these are all presented as good things both in mental health, and in other aspects of western, capitalist society. Growth has to go up to be good. Sales going up are good – and no matter the reason or the cost.

I can experience entering a state of depression as a sinking feeling or a fall – there is a bodily sensation I associate with it that has a definite trajectory. However, that’s just the beginning, and it is normal for me to stop falling. Once I’m in depression, I may experience it as being more like a confined space that I don’t know how to leave, or a plateau in a landscape where all the colour is washed out.

Imagine only seeking an upward trajectory. That means constantly seeking a new high, and when we use that language, what is evoked is not bliss, but addiction. If you are always trying for a bigger high, you’re probably using substances, or addicted to adrenaline. In the landscape of the mind, always going higher isn’t a good thing, but we don’t talk about the process of feeling good as much as we talk about depression, so beyond the uplift of recovery, it’s not really explored.

Our natural emotional states fluctuate. Our inner landscapes tend to be like physical landscapes that have some diversity in them. We go up and down. We have awkward bits and easy bits, fertile bits and arid bits. In a physical landscape, the highest places you can go are mountains, and it is worth noting that people don’t tend to live on the tops of mountains because while they may be exciting, they are neither safe nor sustaining for us.

In a physical landscape, the furthest down you can go is into cave systems – which can be dangerous, but people have lived in caves. Down at the lowest level on the ground tends to be where you find the most fertile soils and the river valleys that have supported human civilizations for a very long time. Low ground tends to be suitable for us, sustaining and inhabitable. Has the metaphor broken down now, or is there more to it?

We use ‘high’ and ‘low’ to describe power, status and value. High is always good, low is always bad. Even when we’re talking low cost to the buyer, we all know that it means a lack of quality, it’s the crappy stuff for the poorer people. In terms of our inner states, high and low are both problematic. Most of us do not thrive when living at emotional extremes.

Sometimes, the dark journeys through the cave systems of our mind are necessary. The Dark Night of the Soul is a spiritual experience. Sometimes we have to break down to break through. Our ‘negative’ emotions are part of a healthy and engaged response to life. Grief, fear, pain and anger aren’t things to reject, but to acknowledge as part of what it means to be human. If you care, you will also worry, and hurt and grieve. We would be better off if we did not treat our own ‘low’ places as states to avoid, but were able to make room for them.


Being crap together

Being professional means putting a brave face on it, feigning competence when you feel you have none. Smiling at people because it’s your job to smile at people and not because anything inside you feels like smiling. It’s not necessarily just a work issue. Maybe in your family you are the one who is always calm, clever, able to figure stuff out. Maybe in your friend circle you’re the joker, the one who cheers everyone else up.

When you’re depressed, the roles that you usually play can feel like awkward masks. Taking the mask off and showing what’s really going on may be unthinkable. Playing the roles you’ve got when you don’t feel equal to any of them takes a toll, and that emotional cost can push you further into the dark places. Depression can tell you that no one would accept you if you took the mask off and showed them what was really going on.

What happens if we are crap together? What happens if you spend some time with other people and no one has to be clever, or shiny or on top of things? If it’s ok to be tired and have poor concentration, and the conversation lurches awkwardly and is slow and full of gaps… but those gaps aren’t awkward and no one is jumping into the spaces to make anyone else feel small or useless.

Imagine a social space where showing up as you are is totally fine. Where you sit at the table all evening and barely manage a word, but that’s ok, and no one judges you for it or makes anything of it. Imagine not having to pretend to be upbeat for the sake of those around you.

Feeling safe, feeling honest and able to be as you are is a huge gift. It is worth taking a look at the expectations we pile onto ourselves and asking if that’s really how it is. Sometimes it is worth taking the risk of showing up feeling crap and with nothing much to offer. It is always worth embracing other people’s crapness and just having space for them even when they aren’t up to much. It is a huge gift to give. Low expectations can be generous blessings in other people’s lives.

When we move away from ideas of who we are supposed to be in our social lives and make space for where we are, connections with people become deeper and more authentic. If you’ve bought into ideas about presenting as clever, successful, socially potent and all the rest of it, this is a hard crossing to make. On the other side there is more peace, ease, relief and far less stress. When we can be real with each other, when we can be crap together, the world is a far kinder place.

Depressed people are often encouraged to get over it, make an effort, give more in social situations and are often pushed (including by CBT therapy) to try and act ‘normal’. What I’ve found in practice is that if the people around you have room for you to be as you are, however gloomy that is, things get easier. Permission to be your real, hurting self and feeling seen and accepted in that state changes so much. A fake it until you make it approach does not, in my experience, fix depression. It may hide it, but it is only adding to the emotional burden. The person who can be real may find a firmer footing from which they can get back on top of their life and feel better about things.

 


Challenging anxious thoughts

When anxiety rolls in, it announces that everything will be awful. I have a powerful imagination, and my anxiety hijacks this and gets me to imagine multiple terrible outcomes for everything. This is exhausting, and I am really good at frightening myself. For some time now, I’ve been trying to find ways of dealing with this.

I have done some CBT work, and the problem there is that it assumes your anxiety is irrational. My anxiety is not irrational, it is absolutely rooted in my life experiences. The things that come up for me when anxiety kicks in are based firmly on stuff that has happened. Treating it as irrational reduces my self-confidence and has me second guessing myself and that’s not useful. Consequently, stage one of anxiety management for me, is to listen to that anxiety and to acknowledge that it is a perfectly reasonable thing to feel. When I do that it becomes easier to then ask ‘but is it relevant right now?’

I do risk assessments. I try and look as carefully as I can at the situation to decide how applicable my anxious feelings are. Often this helps me at least consider that it may not be terrible. Sometimes I decide that my anxiety is right and that I should get out. At times, my anxious thinking does have a protective aspect to it, and this is something I have no desire to lose.

Sometimes, I can’t tell on reflection whether the anxiety is well-founded or not. Often when dealing with other people, I just don’t have enough information. When dealing with people, I’ve decided that one key question to ask is ‘do I think they will treat me kindly?’ I don’t need everyone to get everything absolutely right for me, but in anxious situations, the care of another person can be a game changer. The person who can say no gently, and with respect isn’t going to do me serious harm. Can I trust a person’s kindness? When I’ve concluded that the answer is ‘yes’ and been proved right, it’s been powerful and transformative stuff. The only thing I need to trust in another human being is their kindness.

I now also challenge myself to try and think about best outcomes as well as worst ones. It helps me not get into obsessive over-thinking about terrible things. It can provide useful information as I risk assess a situation. It helps me see when things really are moving in the right direction. A good outcome can be hard to spot if all you’ve got is disaster thinking. Imagining what the best someone might do would look like helps me open up possibilities that anxiety would have shut down.

I want to keep some aspects of my anxious thinking as part of my tool set. I know it helps me stay safe. I don’t want to give my anxiety the steering wheel, or have it dominate how I think about people and situations. I want to hold room for new and different things to happen, and where I’ve been able to do that, there have been powerful responses from other people that really change things for me.


Work, depression and self esteem

Here are some mechanics I have observed repeatedly in my own life, and am fairly sure I am seeing in the lives of various of my friends who suffer from depression.

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → unable to work → feeling even more inadequate → becoming even more depressed.

Or…

Overworking → exhausted → depressed → feeling inadequate → working harder → becoming even more exhausted → becoming more depressed.

When you look to work for validation, for a sense of self worth and achievement, and depression is gnawing away at your underpinnings, the odds are you aren’t going to win. But, if you don’t work (be that paid or unpaid), you get to feel even more useless. Depression is good at telling a person they are useless, worthless, unlovable, unacceptable.

Thus when depression kicks in, I turn towards work to try and feel validated. While resting might help my body, it can actually leave me more anxious and insecure than trying to crack on. Instead of turning to others around me for help and kindness, I dig in to the most utilitarian relationships. I focus on where I am most useful, not where most good flows towards me.

I’ve looked hard at the mechanics of this, as it happens in my own life and as I observe others on the same downward spirals. The conclusions I have come to are that it is very hard to get off this spiral on your own, and that once you are on it is not a good time to be dealing with the things that cause it. The real answer lies in what happens the rest of the time – how loved, supported, valued, resourced and welcome a person feels. The degree to which utility dominates relationships in the normal scheme of things. The amount of positive feedback and soul food.

This in turn leads me to thinking about how we normally treat each other. How transactional are our relationships? How much of a feeling of scarcity underpins how we treat each other? How much do we do to validate each other in the normal scheme of things? What do we do for the people around us if we suspect they aren’t ok? If we can support and validate each other on terms that are not primarily about usefulness, I suspect we can all help each other stay out of the awful downwards spirals.

There is a massive amount of power in telling someone you value them, and that their value is not conditional on what they do for you.


When to run away

Anxiety creates strong urges to run away. Perhaps some people get fight as well as flight, but I suspect that panic is more likely to just kick off the flight impulse.

A few years ago I decided to give myself permission to act on my panic. I’d been through a lot of challenging situations where I’d had to stay put, no matter what it cost me. Staying with something that has panicked you so much that you feel an overwhelming urge to flee, is something I find not only emotionally tough, but takes a toll on my body as well. Not running away increases the stress. Not manifesting the stress in any visible way creates massive tension in me.

I talked with my nearest and dearest about strategies to manage my running away. We started planning how to handle situations that looked high risk for panic. It took the pressure off considerably. I’ve had to run away from a few things, and it’s generally been a good choice.

Of course running away is only a delaying tactic for some issues. It can be expensive in other ways. I’ve had two work related panic issues in the last year. Running away from workspaces means running away from money. I’ve run away from jobs before that were making me ill, and I’ve run away from a couple of volunteering situations as well. I have learned to put my mental health first, and created a living arrangement that allows me to get out if something is making me ill.

The most recent rounds have been remarkably different however, because both times, someone else has stepped forward with a solution to help me stay. I’ve said many times that I believe in community solutions to mental health problems, but it’s a whole other thing to have someone come in and offer just that. Situations I’ve stepped away from permanently haven’t offered support or much care that I was struggling. No one was willing to do things differently to accommodate me. Sometimes, there wasn’t even anyone willing to hear what the problem was. I don’t think this is unusual – we place the responsibility for mental health problems squarely on the shoulders of the person suffering.

However, when someone else can step in with a solution, everything changes. It means feeling heard and respected, feeling valued despite these problems. It means being given the chance to work in a way that is sustainable for me. It means the work I can do is seen as worth more than the bother of changing things to keep me viable.

Many workplaces are stressful and difficult. When we expect people to just shut up and put up with it, it is inevitable that some will crack under the pressure. We’re living with a mental health crisis that has been explicitly linked to work stress (but not widely reported – it was in a chief medical officer’s report a few years ago). It’s not that startling to discover that when we take care of each other, stress may be less of an issue and people may be less at risk of anxiety and depression. Community solutions work for illness caused by collective dysfunction, if only we have the will to implement them.


Food and happiness

When the subject of food comes up in relation to happiness, it’s usually about comfort eating. And certainly, there are times when comfort eating is a thing. I’ve found toast really helps me ward off low-level depression – there’s nothing like low blood sugar to quietly bring you down. Food has a lot to offer us in terms of happiness.

Hunger, poor nutrition and low blood sugar will all contribute to feelings of gloom and misery. Eating a diet that supports your bodily and mental health obviously contributes to happiness. People dieting can be quick to cut out the fats, but brain and skin alike do need fats – plant derived ones are best. Amino acids from protein are essential for brain function, it is harder to feel happy if you aren’t getting enough amino acids in your diet. Protein is expensive, so poverty diets are likely to increase your unhappiness.

We live in a culture where fat shaming is normal, and where food is loaded with social and emotional messages for many people. However, food is essential to life, and as social creatures, food plays an important role (or can) in our interactions. Creating spaces where food can be approached in a comfortable and relaxed way, can really help improve happiness. Sharing nutritionally good food in easygoing company can be a source of great comfort, joy and pleasure. Being cooked for often registers with people as an expression of care. I’ve also heard many stories about older relatives who expressed love through food – and so long as that’s not your only expression, that’s fine.

Eating well takes care of some of our most basic needs. To eat well in a physically comfortable space as part of a community where you feel safe and welcome, answers a great many of our most basic needs. Taking the time to do this can be really powerful. When we feel under pressure to rush about, and eat solitary meals in a hurry, we miss out on a lot of good stuff, and we miss the social bonding that can happen around food.

I appreciate that for anyone with an eating disorder, food is stressful and problematic. I don’t have the experience to speak to that in much detail, I’ve only ever been on the edges of it. I think any of us can help with this by making food more comfortable and less stressful – not loading it emotionally with shame or with demands, not putting pressure on anyone over what they do, or do not eat, not making body size or appetite an issue – it all helps make eating less of an issue. Acceptance can be powerful and enabling.

If you’re concerned about someone else’s body shape, or about what they do, or do not eat, and the person is not your own small child, it’s not your job to tell them. A great deal of food-related bullying comes from people who are convinced they are being helpful. As though overweight and underweight people are unable to tell what’s going on with their bodies. Yes, sometimes illness distorts body sense, but if you aren’t either a mental health professional, or absolutely aware of how the person sees themselves, you’ve got no basis to take this on. Challenging people over their eating and body size usually has the effect of making them feel worse, disempowered, ashamed and miserable. None of these feelings enable a person to move towards a more sustaining relationship with food.

If you want to help someone have a happier relationship with food, quietly model that relationship, and give them a safe and supportive space in which they can make changes for themselves.